Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4

TRACKS IN THE SAND: Our Haiku/Tanka/Renga Niche
A column by George Swede


In Ottawa on June 9, 2006, I was involved in a panel discussion on Japanese poetic forms at the League of Canadian Poets AGM. At the last AGM I attended twenty years ago, the suggestion of such a panel would have been ridiculed. At that time, most Canadian poets and their publishers believed that only Japanophiles, poet-tasters or poets with short attention spans wrote haiku. Several well known Canadian haiku poets never considered joining because they knew that no one who wrote chiefly haiku would ever be considered for membership. I was accepted because my first two collections involved mainly longer poetry. Why did I want to be a member of an association that held such anti-haiku views? My publishers expected me to go on tours to sell my books and the best way to do so was to be a member of the League because it receives provincial and federal funding for its extensive poets-in-the-schools program.

What happened on June 9th? The panel discussion (involving Maxianne Berger, Terry Ann Carter, Dina Cox and me) was a success. Over half of the conference attendees came (despite a glamorous competing session) and were deeply involved, listened attentively and asked meaningful questions. When our 90 minutes were up, many of the audience continued to talk to us during the coffee break. Another measure of the panel's success is that the AGM executive has asked Terry Ann Carter to organize haiku, senryu, tanka and renga workshops for a forthcoming AGM.

The four of us were in a good mood after the AGM experience. It clearly showed that the attitudes of Canadian mainstream poets toward the haiku and its related forms had become positive, almost embracing. But how widespread is this change and how does one measure it? To be scientific, the four of us should have the same panel discussion at ten different AGMs, clearly something difficult to do. Instead, I decided to look at a variety of different measures. If most showed healthy developments regarding Japanese short form poetry, then that would suggest our panel experience was not an anomaly.

After much deliberation, I decided on five different yardsticks based largely on the extent of available data. Not surprisingly, most of their focus is on the haiku since it has a broader and deeper history in the English speaking world than tanka or renga. The longer commentaries and greater number of examples following some of the measures do not necessarily indicate their greater importance, only that they require more explication.

1) Nobel Laureates Who Have Published Haiku

Five Nobel Prize Winners in Literature (but cited for their poetry) have published haiku (or haiku-like poems), either ones they had written or translated from the Japanese masters. The dates which follow each name refer to the year they won the prize: the Indian Rabindrath Tagore–1913; the Greek Giorgos Seferis–1963; the Pole Czeslaw Milosz–1980; the Mexican Octavio Paz–1990; and the Irish Seamus Heaney–1995 (All Noble; The Nobel). Rabindrath Tagore only translated from the Japanese into Bengali (Trumbull, 2006), but, as is well known, the rest actually wrote haiku. In fact, Czeslaw Milosz did much more than that–he edited an anthology called Haiku (1992). It consists of his translations of haiku from six Japanese masters as well as from 38 Canadian and American haiku poets (Rozmus, 2006). Milosz's effort, especially, seems to me to be a significant acknowledgment of haiku as a genuine sub-genre of English poetry.

2) Other Acclaimed Poets Who Have Published Haiku

The list of outstanding poets who either translated and/or wrote haiku is long. What follows is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive: the Argentinian Luis Borges (Trumbull, 2006); many outstanding Mexicans, apart from Paz, such as, José Juan Tablada, Carlos Pellicer, José Gorostiza, Jaime Torres Bodet, Arturo González Cosío, and Ramón Iván Suárez Caamal (Swede and Krumins, 2004, 2005); the German Rainer Maria Rilke and the Russians Konstantin Bal'mont and Valery Bryusov and the Irish Paul Muldoon (Trumbull, 2006); the Canadians Leonard Cohen, Christopher Dewdney and Patrick Lane (Swede, 2002).

The longest list is from the United States: Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Charles Reznikoff, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Richard Wright (Swede, 1997); Robert Hass, Sam Hamill, Robert Bly, Cid Corman, Charles Henri Ford, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, E.E. Cummings, Hayden Carruth, J.D. Salinger, William Stafford, Wendy Cope, Tom Disch, John Updike, W.S. Mervin, Richard Brautigan, Paul Goodman, John Ashberry and Donald Hall (Trumbull, 2006).

Special mention should be made of Paul Muldoon, who in 2005 published a collection with Modern Haiku Press, Sixty Instant Messages to Tom Moore and five others (all from the United States) who recently published new work in the periodical Modern Haiku: Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Trumbull, 2006). The fact that widely celebrated poets are submitting their work to specialist haiku presses adds support to the idea that Japanese short form poetry has a legitimate niche in English language poetry.

3) University Credit Courses Involving Haiku

Practically everyone who reads this column will have studied the haiku in grade school and, perhaps even in high school, but its appearance in university curricula would give it the unquestioned status of serious poetry. My searches of university catalogues, as well as the Internet, discovered many universities that taught about Japanese haiku, especially in departments of East Asian Studies. The latter typically deal with haiku as a unit in a credit course on some aspect of Japanese literature. I found none, however, that offered haiku only courses, although the possibility of studying either Japanese or English haiku exists via courses designated as "independent study". If we include in this category PhD dissertations, then one was successfully completed in 1989 by Thomas Lynch at the University of Oregon, "An Original Relation to the Universe: Emersonian Poetics of Immanence and Contemporary American Haiku". Lynch's clear and insightful discussion includes the work of ten haiku poets (nine American and one Canadian). It has never been published, but deserves to be.

The study of English language haiku seems to be found mainly in creative writing courses in which students practice writing various poetic forms. I could find only one institution of higher learning, Millikin University, that devotes an entire course to the haiku; in fact it has two. For this we can thank Randy Brooks, one of the leading figures of Western haiku. After he started working at Millikin, Brooks created two credit courses on the haiku form during the1990s and has taught them ever since (Millikin). He is currently Chair of the Department of English.

In small, but significant ways, the English haiku has become respectable in the groves of academe. This is quite an accomplishment, for, as many of us know, university departments are reluctant to adopt for their curricula anything that has not been time tested.

4) Haiku History Shows Breadth and Depth of Growth

During 1979 and 1980, Elizabeth Searle Lamb published the first history of the English language haiku in North America. It revealed the extent of haiku interest and involvement from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Arctic Circle to the Rio Grande. But it also did something else that was in the long run more important. It created a sense of community among haiku poets, a feeling that they were part of a movement.

Inspired by Lamb's landmark work, I published a follow-up history in 1997. Its central focus was on why so many major American poets found the haiku compelling. It also provided more details about the origins and early development of the English haiku as well as how interest in the haiku had spread around the world.

Then in 2005 and in 2006, Charles Trumbull published two extensive updates. They document in detail the tremendous expansion of the haiku movement that has occurred since 1979, around the world and on the Internet, with some parts that describe the growing involvement of members of the poetry establishment with haiku. Indeed, so much has happened in the 26 years since the last of Lamb's articles, that Trumbull had to leave out events that were notable in Lamb's work and mine. Trumbull's outstanding scholarship strongly supports the theme of this column, that the haiku has become deeply imbedded in English speaking cultures.

5) The Publication of Haiku Books By Bona Fide Publishers

Commitment to a haiku manuscript by a publisher, especially a large one, can involve an investment of thousands of dollars. How much more real can a demonstration of belief and commitment be than the shelling out of money to put someone else's book before the reading public? Prior to the 1960s, most English language books containing haiku were translations of the work of Japanese poets. Since the 1960s, however, a boom in English haiku publishing has occurred, particularly in the United States. Here are examples found on my bookshelves of large US houses putting out books that include original haiku in English: Harold Henderson's Haiku in English (Tuttle, 1967); Ann Atwood's three collections of haiku with photographs, Haiku: The Mood of the Earth, 1971, Haiku–Vision in Poetry and Photography, 1977, and Fly with the Wind, Flow with the Water, 1979 (all with Charles Scribner); Joan Giroux's The Haiku Form (Tuttle, 1974); Cor van den Heuvel's three editions of The Haiku Anthology (Doubleday, 1974; Simon & Schuster, 1986; Norton, 1999); William J. Higginson's The Haiku Handbook (McGraw Hill, 1985) and his haiku anthology for children Wind in the Grass (Simon & Schuster, 1991); Bruce Ross's Haiku Moment (Tuttle, 1993); Penny Harter's collection for children, Shadow Play: Night Haiku (Simon & Schuster, 1994); and, finally, the collection Haiku: This Other World by the famed novelist Richard Wright (published posthumously by Arcade, 1998).

Numerous smaller U.S. presses also have published haiku (as well as related forms), but to list all their titles would be too much for this column. Here, at least, are the names of the presses that I could find in my study. While some are no longer in business, they still have a place in haiku history: AHA Books, Alembic, Bonsai, Brooks Books, Brussels Sprout, Deep North, From Here, Grey Fox, Gusto, High/Coo, Hummingbird, J&C Transcripts, Jade Mountain, Juniper, Katsura, Katydid Books, La Alameda, Leanfrog, Lilliput Review, Longhouse, Modern Haiku, Press Here, Red Moon, Runaway Spoon, Saki, Seer Ox, Smith-Waithe, Sparrow, Swamp, The Rook, Timberline, Tiny Poems, White Egret, White Pine, Wind Chimes, Winfred, etc.

In Canada, the story is a little different from that in the US–a major publisher has yet to invest in a book of haiku or related forms, yet small presses, like their counterparts in the US, have released a number of collections and anthologies: Black Moss, blewointment, Breakwater, Burnt Lake, Carleton University, Columbine Editions, Commoners' Publishing Society, Éditions Asticou, Fiddlehead, King's Road, Guernica, Haiku Canada, HMS, pawEpress, Proof, Pulp, Silver Birch, Simon & Pierre, South Western Ontario Poetry, Three Trees, Underwhich Editions, Unfinished Monument, Wee Giant, etc.

The situation in the United Kingdom is similar to that in Canada. Many readers are already familiar with two active UK presses that have published haiku and tanka: Iron, and particularly, Snapshot. Some other houses that have put out books involving haiku are Alba Publishing, Equinox, Hub Editions, Global Oriental, K.T. Publications, MQ Publications, Polygon, Red Lake, etc.

The data suggest that in the English speaking countries of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, the haiku is no longer seen as an indulgence of Japanophiles or poet-tasters, but as a legitimate short poetic form that merits attention by book publishers. No longer do haiku poets have to self publish or seek the services of vanity presses in order to be read. While some might still choose to do so for personal reasons, they now have outlets growing in number for the past thirty to forty years.


Overall, the evidence strongly indicates that the haiku now occupies a secure niche in the great edifice of English poetry. It's only a matter of time before someone from our community has a spread in Poetry or even in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine or The Atlantic Monthly. To make our spot more roomy will, however, be a challenge because we will be battling for space with the advocates of other poetic forms outside mainstream free verse, such as the limerick, sonnet, ballad, ghazal, rap, sound and concrete poetry, etc. This situation merely reflects the developing state of affairs in all human enterprises–specialization with resultant small niche audiences. One has only to look at films and music to see the multiplication of sub-genres in the last thirty years. The days of mass appeal seem to be almost over. Much the same can be said for all other areas of human endeavor. Nevertheless, our efforts with Japanese short poetic forms have been rewarded. The entire haiku/tanka/renga community can now feel as validated as the four of us did after our panel discussion at the League of Canadian Poets 2006 AGM.



All Nobel Laureates in Literature [Web site] Accessed 17 Sept 06.

Lamb, E.S. (1979). A history of Western haiku. Cicada, Volume 3, Number 1 (3-9); Number 2 (3-9); Number 3 (3-10).

Millikin University Haiku Courses [Web site] Accessed 17 Sept 06.

Rozmus, L. (2006). Personal email, September 17, 20.

Milosz, C. (1992). Haiku. Krakow: Biblioteka Naglosu-Wydawnictwo.

Swede, G. (1997). "A history of the English haiku and why it flourished in North America." Haiku Canada Newsletter, Volume 10, Number 2 (5-12) & Number 3 (4-12).

Swede, G. (2002). "The haiku in Canada: The formative years, 1965-1985." Haiku Canada Newsletter, Volume XVI, Number 1, 8-13.

Swede, G. & Krumins, A. (2004). "The Mexican haiku, part one: Origins." Modern Haiku, Volume 35.1, 44-56 & (2005). "The Mexican haiku, part two: After the pioneers," Volume 36.1, 26-41.

The Nobel Prize Internet Archive [Web site] Accessed 17 Sept 06.

Trumbull, C. (2005). "The American haiku movement part I: Haiku in English." Modern Haiku, Volume 36.3, 33-73. & (2006)."The American haiku movement part II: American haiku, the Internet, and world haiku." Volume 37.1, 29-54.